TIME China

China’s Censors Are Leaving the World’s Most Populous Nation With Very Little to Watch on TV

A man watches a TV screen showing live broadcast of Yu giving a speech during the opening session of the CPPCC, at a shopping mall in Kunming
Wong Campion—Reuters A man watches a TV screen showing live broadcast of Yu Zhengsheng, chairman of the National Committee of the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC), giving a speech during the opening session of the CPPCC, at a shopping mall in Kunming, the Chinese province of Yunnan, on March 3, 2016

New rules on what can or cannot be depicted are so stringent that even the country's fabled literary classics wouldn't make the cut today

Witches or reincarnations? Nope. Star-crossed teenage lovers or gay couples? No way. Lonely individuals stuck in unhappy marriages, especially those who drink away their troubles or engage in “extreme vengeance”? Definitely not.

In a bid to improve national morality, the Chinese government has issued new guidelines that ban any of these characters from appearing on domestic TV programs. Shows that promote “abnormal sexual relations or sexual behavior” have been ordered off the airwaves. Such behavior, according to Chinese censors, includes incest, perversion, sexual abuse and homosexuality. Depictions of prostitution, one-night stands and “sexual freedom” are prohibited.

In an eight-page catalog of forbidden subjects, Chinese censors also nixed programming that glorifies colonialism, ethnic wars and dynastic conquests of other countries. TV shows must not, under any condition, undermine social stability. Even depictions of “luxurious lifestyles” are now supposedly taboo. In late 2014, government censors edited cleavage from a popular historical drama. Time travel was deemed inappropriate as well.

Given the long list of banned topics, it’s hard to imagine what is allowed on Chinese TV that might be of interest to the average young, urban viewer. YouTube is blocked in China. Western and South Korean TV shows, accessed online, are popular but state Internet monitors occasionally disrupt streaming services. As China’s President Xi Jinping intensifies an anticorruption and ideological purification campaign, Chinese government officials have warned against “hostile foreign forces” spreading pernicious Western values. (Two Chinese academics refused to discuss the new TV rules with TIME because it is a foreign media organization.)

Last year, official Chinese media publicized a speech given by President Xi in 2014 in which he said that “art and culture will produce the most positive energy when the Marxist perspective on art and culture is firmly established.” Xi warned against artists churning out “cultural rubbish” or kitschy, commercial works that are “ecstasy pills for sensual stimulation.” The new rules, of course, ban any actual drugs, along with other “bad behaviors,” from making cameos on national TV.

A popular social-media meme in China pointed out that the nation’s four great literary masterpieces, including Journey to the West and Dream of the Red Chamber, all contravene the new TV regulations because they explore superstition, teenage and extramarital love, reincarnation, vengeance and feudal thoughts. What are TV viewers in China left to do? “Let’s watch CCTV news everyday,” went one well-circulated online response, referring to the nation’s propaganda-heavy, official news program.

— With reporting by Yang Siqi / Beijing

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